Monday, August 6

Review: Dead Cells [Nintendo Switch eShop]


One of the biggest challenges when writing reviews almost exclusively for indies is figuring out what constitutes a 10 in this space, where budgets are smaller and asking prices aren’t the typical $60 people are conditioned to accept for AAA games. Unless the developer is plain crazy and giving their game away expecting a 1 to 1 in all areas wouldn’t be fair. What’s satisfying is that every once in a while a game comes along where the questions and wondering evaporate because it is so clearly deserving of the best score you can give. Dead Cells is such a game, taking the ball and running hard and fast with its superb roguelike elements mixed with extremely satisfying (I’ll say it, though it pains me) Metroidvania gameplay. In the process I believe it has established itself as the high water mark in both areas, showing how it’s done in a very convincing fashion.


Starting with the action, there’s a fluidity to your skirmishes with enemies that plain feels right. Whether you favor rolling around to duck attacks, pulling up your shield to block or deflect shots, or just waiting for the right moment to come in shooting or slashing before they have a chance to counter you have a variety of base combat options. Layering on to this nicely, once you get some traps to work your opportunities multiply and veer out in a wide variety of directions. You could use grenades to inflict damage and stun, turrets that will wear down enemies as long as you remain in range, and numerous others that each have their own strengths and weaknesses. As you advance you’ll have the opportunity to pick up ever more powerful versions of these weapons and traps but the thing you’ll want to keep an eye on is their enhancements, which when you combine items that have an affinity for one another (say, a trap that drops oil with a weapon that does burning damage) can lead to far more devastating damage. All of this combines to make for extremely diverse and dynamic combat where going in with throwing darts and a bow can be just as effective as a traditional sword and shield combo depending on what you have to work with. The key is to keep moving and try to control the area of battle, always being ready for surprises.


If all of the above makes it sound as if your character can get quite powerful you’d be right, but that’s where the game shoves back hard with its roguelike elements and a degree of challenge that’s not to be taken lightly. Dead Cells is notoriously tough, and for good reason. That said, once you get the hang of things and settle into your own personal combat styles (that’s plural because to be successful you need to work with what you’re given) you’ll begin to accumulate blueprints to new items that you’ll then use cells you gather to unlock permanently. While your gold is important, the loss of a large number of cells when you die can be particularly devastating. True to the roguelike spirit everything is about risk and reward though, so you’ll be tempted with things like exploring just a bit further, using a cursed chest, going into a challenge portal, or taking on an elite monster to try for better gear or cells all while putting those you already have on the line. Taking temptation to an entirely different level there are timed doors that will only open if you’ve flown through the previous stage, promising rewards but at the cost of taking your time to explore and find additional gold or gear.


All of the above would give the game a pretty high score but what really takes it to the top are all of the small things it then does right to top it off. Through thorough exploration and some tough battles you’ll slowly collect runes that will give you access to new paths and secrets. Finding these secret areas is always interesting because aside from often yielding gold, a weapon, or food, they tend to tell small pieces of a bigger story of what’s going on. Gaining rune powers will also open up different paths you can choose to move through the game, with some areas being tougher than others but also typically giving greater opportunities for rewards. Whether in terms of the typical combat, fighting elites and bosses, or simply trying to stay alive and not lose your precious cells there’s a great deal of delicious tension in the game because you quickly and painfully learn early on that you never really know what could lie ahead.


Bottom line, Dead Cells is absolutely the new gold standard of how to make an amazing roguelike that’s brutally tough but also generally fair. Slowly but surely persistence and success will unlock new items and enhancements that will then lead to deeper and generally more rewarding runs. Rarely is the game solely to blame for your deaths, you always need to make smart use of the choices your given, even if they may not suit your ideal style. Explore, exploit your traps to their fullest, always know where you’ll be able to safely escape to when things go south, and be prepared with the right gear for fighting bosses and you will make progress. If you’ve been looking for that game that always feels good to play that you can look forward to returning to and will always deliver a challenge and excitement Dead Cells absolutely fits that bill.


Score: 10

Pros:
  • Looks, sounds, and plays phenomenally well whether docked or in handheld mode
  • Challenging but smart combat action that supports a wide variety of viable builds and styles
  • Satisfying progression through the collection of runes and blueprints that slowly help reveal new areas, opportunities, and challenges
  • It’s what I’d consider the pinnacle of what both roguelikes and Metroidvanias can be
  • The unlockable Daily Run mode is both extremely challenging and interesting because it will let you see enemies and use gear that you haven’t unlocked yet

Cons:
  • The difficulty can be intimidating initially, but developing some technique and learning how to properly utilize traps and evasion strategies will go a long way to helping you improve
  • If you’re looking for a story you won’t find more than fragments of a picture of what’s going on that you accumulate very slowly over time